Where international students study and why, what key motivators and barriers students from different countries might be most likely to consider, and how colleges can build on that knowledge to better recruit and serve students from around the globe were some of the key questions considered Tuesday as the 59th Annual NAFSA: Association of International Educators Annual Conference & Expo  got under way in Minneapolis.
In a session on “Understanding and Engaging the International Student,” representatives from Hobsons , a student recruitment and enrollment management firm, presented data from a 2006 survey of about 28,000 prospective international students worldwide. The survey looks at such questions as why students wish to study abroad, their perceptions of various English-speaking destinations and why some appeal more than others, their expectations, and their key concerns.
The landscape for recruiting and retaining international students is changing, said Line Verbik, research manager at Hobsons. Given changes in student mobility -- Verbik pointed to declines in international student enrollment in the United States post September 11 and the slowing of growth in international enrollments in the United Kingdom and Australia in recent years -- presenters stressed the need to have greater information about prospective students’ decision-making processes and the factors they consider.
Not surprisingly, the Hobsons survey found commonalities among international students from around the globe, as well as some country-specific distinctions. Among the highlights presented Tuesday, which focused exclusively on the approximately 11,000 survey responders from China, Germany, India, Japan and Nigeria:
- When asked their reasons for wanting to study internationally, students across the board emphasized improving their opportunities for careers abroad and gaining experiences and better preparing for future careers in their home countries, as well as a sense that the standard of education is better abroad. But Verbik pointed out that students from countries with developed and less developed economies had different priorities: While students in Germany and Japan were most likely to list gaining new experiences as their top priority, Chinese, Indian and Nigerian students were more likely to stress getting a better education and preparing for their careers.
- When it comes to perceptions, international students typically cited the strength of the education system and career preparation as top reasons to study in the United States and United Kingdom. While they mentioned Australia’s academic reputation, they were also more likely to point to other factors drawing them there -- among them a more attractive lifestyle and the belief that it’s easier to get a student visa to study down under than in Europe or the United States, Verbik said.
- Business and administration programs proved particularly popular with international students across the board. Information technology and engineering were especially popular with Indian and Nigerian students, whereas in Japan, for instance, social studies and art and design were the preferred fields after business.
- Frequently cited expectations for education providers across countries included a safe location, responsive staff and good service, good sources of funding, good facilities and a strong institutional reputation for a course of study, although regional variations did persist. (Among them: German and Nigerian students were most likely to cite good facilities as the most important factor, while Chinese students pointed to reputation).
- Chinese and Indian students said scholarships were their most important source of funding, while German, Japanese and Nigerian students pointed in greater proportions to relatives. Other popular sources of funding included bank loans (particularly popular in India, Verbik said), grants, sponsorships, savings and part-time work.
- Confirming the conventional wisdom that word of mouth matters most, Hobsons found that in every country but Japan, friends were the most valued source of advice. In Japan, the teacher/lecturer was the preferred source (and in Germany, the teacher tied with friends for the top spot). Students returning home with stellar experiences are, Verbik said, “the best ambassadors."
- The cost of living and cost of tuition and fees were the most common barriers expressed in all countries, with concerns about visas cited by a much smaller proportion of students, Verbik said (although Nigerian students were most apt to mention visas as a barrier).
Steve Berridge, director of the international education office at the University of Westminster, in London (which has 6,000 international students), praised the Hobsons survey results for offering valuable information on prospective international students, while emphasizing the difficulty of reading the results in context. He added the caveat that a survey of interest among prospective students may not always signal market demand. For instance, Hobsons found that Nigerian students were far more interested in pursuing undergraduate study abroad. "I know for a fact," Berridge said, "that Nigeria is a postgraduate market.”
The NAFSA conference, with sessions and plenary addresses on a wide variety of topics involving international students and study abroad, continues through Friday. More than 7,000 participants from 90 countries are expected to attend.